If you had to adjust to becoming blind at the age of 20, you’d probably count on the love and support of your family to get you through it. But that wasn’t how things worked out for Sylvia.
“Before I went blind, my husband loved me,” she says. “When I couldn’t see any more, he said I had become useless and that he had to nurse me like a child. He began mistreating me and I made a decision to leave him.”
Her husband kept their two daughters: attitudes towards the capabilities of people with disabilities meant that nobody thought Sylvia would be able to look after her children. She has been stopped from even visiting them, and her only contact with them is the occasional phone call. “I asked him to bring them to see me,” she says, “but he refused.” She last saw her eldest daughter in 2013, and her youngest in 2014.
It’s obviously incredibly difficult for Sylvia to think about the devastating loss of access to her two little girls, whose only contact with her now is the occasional phone call. As the days pass she’s missing every moment of their childhoods, for no valid reason apart from prejudice and discrimination. There are no words to sum up how unjust that is.
Unsurprisingly, after all of this happened, Sylvia completely lost hope. She tells us she’d moved back in with her parents, but didn’t take any steps to look for a job, because by now she was convinced she was useless and couldn’t do anything. She stayed in because she was too scared to try and move around. And her friends dropped away because they didn’t know how to help her go anywhere outside the house; they didn’t want to walk with her.
Life was tough for Sylvia. There was a glimpse of hope one day: she was listening to the radio and heard that Sightsavers was promoting Connecting the Dots, a programme to help young people with disabilities gain skills and find work. But it was dashed when she excitedly mentioned it to her parents.
“I asked my father to take me to the office of Sightsavers,” she tells us. “But he was reluctant. He had written me and my future off because I was blind.”
Her parents were sceptical of the programme. Edith, the programme manager for Connecting the Dots, tells us Sylvia’s mother had the attitude that “she’s blind, that’s the end of her, what can she do. These programmes are lying.”
But hearing about the programme had planted a seed in Sylvia’s mind, and she went to her parish councillor. “I told him my problem,” she says, “and he said: ‘I will take you the next day.’ When I was there I met Madame Edith and the other members of the office… They told me I’m going to learn how to be walking on my own. And they tell me that I’m going to start making sweaters.”
Sylvia spent three months at St Kizito vocational school, learning to use a knitting machine. Connecting the Dots supported her to gain essential life skills, like navigating with a white cane and reading and writing braille. She gained a work placement with a local employer, and started earning small amounts of money.
After starting to knit and seeing what she could produce, Sylvia’s confidence grew enormously. “I stopped looking at myself as a worthless person,”she tells us. Her increased self-esteem was helped by new friendships with other students. During the training she’d met and bonded with Emilly and Jennifer, who she now shares a home with.
She describes to us how well it works: the three girls know each other’s strengths and capabilities. Emilly, who has a physical disability, finds fetching water a challenge, so Sylvia and Jennifer get water together while Emilly cooks, then Sylvia washes up while Jennifer mops.
For Sylvia, Connecting the Dots has led not only to skills, friendships and employment, but to a renewed sense of self-worth and a fierce determination to pave the way for other people with disabilities and inspire them.
“There are so many disabled people out there who have not been given a chance, a voice,” she says. “Most parents feel embarrassed by a disabled child, so they hide us from public view. So people like me who have been empowered effectively become the voice for the disabled people who are marginalised and victimised. Just because I can’t walk, or see, or hear, doesn’t make me any less of a human being.”
Because she has been helped, Sylvia tells us, it is now her joy. Her dream is to set up a training place like Lydia’s, so that she can have people come to her for training, and the community will look at her with respect, because they have seen that blind people can train people with normal vision.
The European Commission has funded the economic empowerment programme since 2012, and additional funding was awarded in August 2017 by the Big Lottery Fund. This generous support has helped to transform the lives of hundreds of young people with disabilities in Uganda.